Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Still Special?

Kevin Drum on the recent Israeli/Syrian kerfuffle:

The New York Times has a bit of further reporting on that Israeli airstrike in northern Syria last month. It turns out that even the White House isn't sure whether the Syrian target was a nuclear weapons development site:

The debate has fractured along now-familiar fault lines, with Vice President Dick Cheney and conservative hawks in the administration portraying the Israeli intelligence as credible and arguing that it should cause the United States to reconsider its diplomatic overtures to Syria and North Korea.

By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her allies within the administration have said they do not believe that the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach.

....Besides Ms. Rice, officials said that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was cautious about fully endorsing Israeli warnings that Syria was on a path that could lead to a nuclear weapon. Others in the Bush administration remain unconvinced that a nascent Syrian nuclear program could pose an immediate threat.

This is really the damnedest thing. But one thing is sure: the Israeli evidence must have been pretty far from a smoking gun if there's this much confusion even among the top mucky mucks. Very peculiar.

Peculiar? Confusion?

Kevin is being unduly deferential here. While under normal circumstances, an open-minded and equanimous approach to differing interpretations of intelligence is the proper posture to assume, the past 6+ years have been anything but "normal." There are compelling reasons to side with one faction's interpretation in the current debate, and the horse to back should be obvious.

If you recall in the run-up to the Iraq War, the State Department's intelligence bureau, the INR, was consistently the most skeptical about Iraq's WMD capacity (as well as other dubious propositions like Saddam's links to al-Qaeda). In other words, the INR was closer to the truth than any other intelligence agency on a broad range of findings used to justify the invasion (one can imagine that if INR's take was the predominant one, war would have been very difficult to sell).

In particular, and most importantly in terms of the only WMD that should have mattered (nuclear weapons), INR wouldn't even speculate that Iraq had a nuclear program, let alone actual nuclear weapons. From the 2002 NIE, for example:

"The activities we have detected do not, however, add up to a compelling case that Iraq is currently pursuing what INR would consider to be an integrated and comprehensive approach to acquire nuclear weapons." [...]

[T]he claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa are, in INR’s assessment, highly dubious.” [...]

Iraq’s efforts to acquire aluminum tubes is central to the argument that Baghdad is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, but INR is not persuaded that the tubes in question are intended for use as centrifuge rotors . . . The very large quantities being sought, the way the tubes were tested by the Iraqis, and the atypical lack of attention to operational security in the procurement efforts are among the factors, in addition to the DOE assessment, that lead INR to conclude that the tubes are not intended for use in Iraq’s nuclear weapon program.”

On the other side of the coin, were the cherry-picking, intel-manipulating boys operating under Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney - Dougals Feith and the others in and around the Office of Special Plans. This faction not only circumvented the normal intelligence collection/vetting process in order to create the most alarmist (and wildly inaccurate) intelligence products regarding Iraq's WMD and al-Qaeda connections, but this group also pressured other traditional intelligence venues to hew to a pre-ordained (and, again, grossly inaccurate) party line. In the face of the INR's warnings, Dick Cheney famously stated about Saddam:

"[W]e believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons" [March 2003]

Not a "program," but actual "weapons"! Rumsfeld was equally unequivocal - openly lying about the existence of a rather serious debate amongst the various intelligence shops:

"We said they had a nuclear program. That was never any debate." [July 13, 2003]

This is probably a well worn path for many readers, so I won't dwell on it too long. It's just that after witnessing the vastly divergent results generated by the Cheney faction and the State Department in the run-up to the Iraq war, and the fact that the Cheney operation hasn't improved on its record or taken responsibility for its grievous errors since, why would anyone view their competing claims with an evenhand and open mind now that the target has shifted from Iraq to North Korea, Iran and Syria?

Deja vu all over again in the worst way. We are lucky enough to have the benefit of hindsight now, though - informed by the comparative track records, as well as more knowledge about competing agendas and awareness as to a general propensity to deceive and use intelligence mendaciously. After factoring in those variables, the State Department and Robert Gates deserve the overwhelming benefit of the doubt, absent compelling countervailing evidence. That would be true even if straight-shooters like Dr. Jeffrey Lewis weren't backing up State's take.

If this is unfair to Cheney et al, they only have themselves to blame. Credibility is a contingent attribute.

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